By Aleia Walker, COHA Research Associate
Laughingly considered the world’s oldest profession, prostitution and sex work are frequently intertwined with Caribbean tourism. Quintessential resort islands are often pictured with lithe, melanin-rich indigenous beauties on the arms of plump distinguished foreign men. In the majority of Caribbean islands, the purchase and sale of sex are illegal activities. The Dutch Antilles, however, provide a special opportunity for the commercial sex industry not legally available in the rest of the Caribbean.
As present or former territories of the Netherlands, the Dutch Antilles fall under many of the same general laws as their mother country, including the controlled legalization of prostitution. The six Dutch-speaking islands are divided into two groups: Sint Maarten, Saba, and Sint Eustatius (the SSS Islands) and Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao (the ABC islands).
Although male, female, homosexual, and heterosexual prostitution in tourist-populated areas is rampant throughout the entire Caribbean region, only in the Dutch Antilles is the sex industry officially regulated, making it arguably safer than other Caribbean locales. St Maarten and Curaçao are particularly prime locations for sex tourism as they house the two largest biggest brothels in the Dutch Caribbean. The largest, Campo Alegre, is located on Curaçao while the smaller Seaman’s club is located on St Maarten.
Established in 1949, Campo Alegre fulfilled two needs for Curaçao. Before brothels were used, prostitution rings catered mostly to sailors, were run out of small bars and shops, and were openly visible throughout the island. The brothel was a joint effort of the government and the Catholic Church, which financed a large portion of the start-up. Basically, the brothels allow prostitution to exist on the island, safely and highly regulated, while keeping it out of view of everyday citizens.
The Rules of the Game
The regulation of prostitution in the Dutch Antilles, though ostensibly stringent, is routinely abused, is appropriated, or ignored. For example, local women may not work in the brothels so they instead solicit sex from their homes. The regulation of prostitution resulted in a large importation of women, mostly from other countries of the Americas, to staff the brothels. Campo Alegre’s website boasts having more than 120 “employees” in residence at any one time. These imported, lighter-complexioned women from the Dominican Republic and Colombia are often a sharp contrast to the Afro-Caribbean population of Curaçao -- who are considered less desirable by the tourist population-and one therefore most often granted three-month prostitution visas. To comply with their visas and their contracts at the brothel, the women must register as prostitutes with the Vice and Morals Police Department and submit themselves to weekly STD and health checkups.
While this arrangement seems very neat and trim, there are a variety of less legal methods through which women become prostitutes. The visa application process is apparently fairly easy but not easy to understand, providing room for abuse. Frequently, women are trafficked by third parties, and many of them do not know that they are being sent into prostitution. Also, there have been reports of women having their passports taken by traffickers and then being required to pay airfare and costly lodging rates on the island. The women are then held in a form of indentured servitude, as they are not allowed to leave the brothel until they settle their debts.
Other locations on the island also participate in the sex trade. At some bars and dance clubs women are expected to engage in solicitation of sex with minimal standard compensation in order to deprive them of an economic option other than prostitution. Bars of this sort often employ foreign women who are not informed of this situation before beginning their position and as such, are subject to the whims of club owners and managers. These women are generally not on prostitution visas and are thus not subject to the Vice and Morals Department or weekly health checks, this is also the case for immigrant women whose local Antillean husbands force them into prostitution in the bars. Not surprisingly, the bars and their clandestine prostitution operations are the most frequent violators of human rights.
Crime and Punishment
In a landmark case nearly 10 years ago, five women sued their employer for being recruited into prostitution in Curaçao under false pretenses. A woman from their home country of Colombia recruited them to work as waitresses on Curaçao, and when they arrived, they were expected to fulfill not only the waitressing role but also engage in prostitution. The women were subjected to multiple tactics indicative of human trafficking. Their traffickers/employers billed them for their airfare and did not give them a return ticket home for the end of their three-month stay. The women were expected to beg their clients to buy their return tickets home. Their passports were confiscated, and they were forbidden to communicate with their relatives. Additionally, the women were not given days off, were only provided with one meal per day, and were forced to buy their own condoms. Anything in addition to their daily sustenance had to be supplied by their clients.
The court awarded the women the payment of the salaries they had been promised originally; however, the club owners were not even prosecuted for coercing and forcing the women into prostitution.
This case further shows the government’s apathy toward helping women who are involved in sex work. The judgment demonstrates the misguided view that the predicament of the women is an occupational hazard, and that although the women were entitled to proper compensation, nothing would be done to prevent future injustices.
Although there are a few avenues available those who feel they are improperly treated to seek help, they are frequently not viable. Law enforcement officials explain that the lack of aid is due to understaffing rather than a lack of empathy for the victims. The United States State Department lists Aruba and Curaçao as Tier 2 offenders in its 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report. The BES islands (Bonaire, Sint Eustasius, and Saba), which are official member states of the Netherlands, are considered Tier 1 since the Netherlands has stricter anti-human trafficking legislation and higher penalties for offenders.
Similar to issues in many other Caribbean nations, Aruba and Curaçao have laws that modestly penalize trafficking in per-sons, but these laws are not always enforced. For instance, in its 2012 report, the US State Department revealed that Curaçao prosecuted zero traffickers and rescued zero victims the previous year, which signifies an absence of appropriate steps to combat trafficking. The lax environment of Curaçao is ripe for trafficking so for the country to say that no offenses occurred within the year is naïve and insulting to victims of the trade.
Conclusions and Recommendations
The legalization of prostitution in the Dutch Caribbean over a half century ago served a void at the time. However, it now enables a niche sex-tourism market and does not differentiate between willing and unwilling sex workers. Government and law officials often insinuate that they are not “proud” of the sex establishments located off the beaten paths of their islands but only feign interest in defending the rights of those working in the sex industry. Streetwalkers are rarely prosecuted as they are only registered and subjected to weekly health examinations. Furthermore, state and law officials are often knowledgeable of the non-lawful establishments in which women often engage in prostitution but maintain they have no way in knowing if these women are coerced – and do little to determine the truth.
As is frequently stated, the issue in the Dutch Caribbean is not corruption but ambivalence. The positions on the issue of sex work have been stagnant for years in the Dutch Antilles, with public demand for the industry overriding the human rights of the trafficking victims. Changes to the current mandates are necessary, but changes in the disposition of the government officials are imperative for any change to stick. The hopeful shift in the government should result in an increase of prosecutions, thus deterring prospective traffickers.
There have, of course, been attempts to increase awareness throughout the Dutch Antilles. In conjunction with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Aruban Anti-Human Trafficking and Smuggling Taskforce Aruba organized a week-long campaign in October highlighting instances of trafficking on the island. The IOM also helped facilitate similar campaigns in a few Anglophone islands yet the presence of similar initiatives in the Dutch speaking isles has been limited.
The spread and influence of awareness campaigns are viable initiatives regarding the reduction of human trafficking in the Dutch Antilles. The circumstances in these islands can most be improved by an increase in citizen participation and lead to a complementary increase in government action. The initial legitimization of prostitution is significant, however the governments’ need to recognize they have a responsibility to protect the rights of everyone within their shores, and not just their birthright citizens. While the industry may be deemed morally criminal, it is lawful and thus deserves the same amount of policing as any other industry on the islands.
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